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Analysts find mixed results in NM child care program

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Elizabeth Groginsky, secretary-designate of the new Early Childhood Education and Care Department, right, and analysts for the Legislative Finance Committee respond to questions from legislators Tuesday during a meeting at the Capitol. (Eddie Moore/ Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – New Mexico's state-subsidized child care program hasn't improved educational outcomes for the kids who participate, although it has succeeded in helping families boost their income, among other benefits, legislative analysts say in a report.

The 83-page report, issued Tuesday by evaluators working for the Legislative Finance Committee, comes as New Mexico ramps up spending on early childhood programs and prepares to establish a new department to oversee them. Lawmakers are considering a request to increase funding on child care assistance next year by $26 million, or roughly 17%.

The report recommends increasing monitoring of child care programs, better coordinating with other early childhood services and improving the rating system used to evaluate providers.

The analysts also said that as the state invests more in child care assistance, the money doesn't appear to be making it down to front-line employees, who are paid below the national average.

“This is very thought-provoking,” said Sen. Gerald Ortiz y Pino, D-Albuquerque. “It certainly raises some questions.”

Much of the analysis centers on two critical goals of New Mexico's child care assistance program: helping prepare youngsters for school and allowing parents to enter the workforce.

Among the findings:

• Child care assistance didn't lead to measurable improvement in educational outcomes, such as school readiness. Kids who participated weren't more ready for school than their peers.

• The program had positive impacts on family income and on some measures of child well-being, such as increased doctor checkups and dental visits. On average, family income increased $3,500 during enrollment in child care assistance, based on tax data from 2013-17.

• The effects on income and child well-being occurred regardless of the provider's ranking under the state's rating system, which pays higher-rated providers more than others. Analysts recommended amendments to the rating system to better track the quality of providers.

• Despite having one of the highest child care reimbursement rates in the nation, New Mexico's early childhood educators are paid below national rates.

Sen. Jacob Candelaria, D-Albuquerque, said the low pay deserves attention, especially given the importance of high-quality interactions between teachers and children.

He asked repeatedly why the state's high reimbursement rate isn't making its way to child care teachers, whose median salary is about $19,740 a year.

“If this is their full-time job, and if they have a kid,” Candelaria said, “we're paying poverty wages to these people.”

Elizabeth Groginsky, the chief of New Mexico's newly created Early Childhood Education and Care Department, said a variety of factors could be at play. Child care providers might be spending more to catch up on repairs or to upgrade their facilities, for example.

Nonetheless, officials said, the state plans to build a workforce registry – New Mexico is the only state without one – to better monitor who's working in child care, what their qualifications are and other data.

The state now spends about $149 million a year on child care assistance, providing a subsidy to low-income families so they can send their children to day care while the parents work or attend school.

Groginsky said the analysts' finding of increased family income testifies to the power of the child care program.

“We do believe we have a lot of strengths to build on,” she said.

The new Early Childhood Education and Care Department, approved earlier this year to consolidate duties from several existing state agencies, is asking for about $253 million from the state general fund next year, an increase of roughly 45% over this year's appropriation. The department receives funding from federal and other sources, too.

The extra money requested by the department would be used to expand prekindergarten, offer child care assistance to more families, raise the wages of early childhood educators, expand home visiting programs for new parents and increase spending in other areas.

Lawmakers gave no indication Tuesday whether they will approve the budget increase.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and members of the Legislative Finance Committee – an influential panel of lawmakers – are set to make their own budget recommendations next month.

The regular legislative session begins Jan. 21, when lawmakers will have 30 days to agree on a budget proposal to send to the governor.


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